After three years of continually testing headlamps, and adding 12 new models to our test pool this time around, we still think the Black Diamond Spot is the best headlamp for most people. Nothing this affordable can burn brighter or longer—very important features if you plan on taking your headlamp into the outdoors. It emits red and white light, the two essential colors for campers and hikers, and the popularity of Black Diamond headlamps among outdoor types adds a desperately needed dash of confidence in its reliability. Currently a lot of fake reviews are floating around and inflating the popularity of less-expensive options, a development we find discouraging. This is becoming a more pervasive problem, and we wish it would stop.
If you’re headed into the wilderness, the Black Diamond Spot gives you the most of what you need (a bright beam and long-lasting battery) and the least of what you don’t (especially high-quality optics) for a reasonable price. The design is lightweight and packable, as well as splashproof and dustproof, and it also has a red LED to preserve your night vision. A few extras are crammed in, too, including a fully dimmable beam, a battery indicator light, and a way to lock the button so the lamp doesn’t turn on in your bag.
Is the Spot perfect? No, but after testing 23 options, we’re convinced that no headlamp is. The single on/off switch is sometimes frustrating, and this headlamp gets no points for optical quality—a hot spot sits right in the middle of the beam. But we don’t think you’ll notice or care (if you do, we have a pick with a better beam below). In our tests, we had no problem using the Spot while hiking in a whiteout blizzard, rummaging around a dark shed, and peering down some long, clogged gutter downspouts.
If the button on the Black Diamond Spot were as easy to use as those on the Vitchelo V800, it would be near perfect. If you’re not bothered by the fact that Vitchelo isn’t a huge brand name, the separate buttons the V800 has for its red and white LEDs are so rare (and so gloriously easy to operate) that we think they make this headlamp worth the purchase alone.
In fact, this light is bright, easy to use, lightweight, and pretty cheap—and we almost made it our top choice, until we vetted the quality of its user reviews on Fakespot. Unfortunately, according to that site, most of this model’s 3,000-plus glowing reviews appear to be fake. That might not matter so much if you’re planning to use your headlamp only in the garage or for walking the dog, but it doesn’t inspire confidence if you intend to take it into the backcountry. Even so, we tested the V800 ourselves, and for now we’re convinced that it’s a good option for casual use.
If you’re a frequent day hiker or a dedicated weekend warrior, having a rechargeable headlamp that you can juice up in the car on the way to the trailhead can be liberating. We looked at nine rechargeable models, and we think the Black Diamond ReVolt is better suited for the beating you’ll give it than any other option. Most important, it can operate on AAAs if the rechargeable battery happens to die when you’re nowhere near a USB outlet, a feature that most rechargeable headlamps don’t have. Rechargeable models are the way of the future, and that’s a great thing, but we’re hesitant to make such a headlamp our top recommendation until they can hold a more reliable, powerful charge for longer.
Of all the headlamps we looked at that use higher-quality optics, the Coast FL75 was our favorite. This model has both a red LED and a white one, and just like our runner-up, it has two separate buttons for those colors, which makes turning it on and toggling through modes unusually, gloriously straightforward.
This is a 405-lumen light, and such bright lights—the kind that spit out beautiful, even beams—can suck a battery dry in no time. They often need specialty battery sizes to maintain that level of output, too. The FL75, however, runs on AAAs and can go for two hours on high and up to 12 hours on low, longer than other lights in the category. The only bummer is that it’s slightly heavier than the Black Diamond Spot, the main reason we often reached for our main pick instead, in spite of how much we love the FL75.
Though we made sure all of our headlamps “for adults” had a red LED for practical purposes, we weren’t shocked to find that kids were drawn to headlamps with red flashing lights, too. The kids we know seem to like it mostly so that they can pretend to be red-eyed monsters or aliens. And why not let them? The Shining Buddy LED Headlamp is easy to adjust and operate, equipped with both red and red-flashing modes (in addition to a white light for utility), and inexpensive enough that everyone can have their own.
Why you should trust us
In addition to spending four years testing and researching outdoor lighting for The Wirecutter, I also live in a cabin out in the woods, so my gear shed, most of my storage, and even my laundry is outside. Every time I need to retrieve a camp stove, a screwdriver, or clean underwear, I use a headlamp.
For this piece we consulted with a team of five Wirecutter staffers, including Mark Smirniotis, author and researcher of our battery pack guide. Mark also appeared on Good Morning America to discuss battery life while testing battery discharge profiles at the Cadex Electronics labs in Vancouver, British Columbia. Glenn Fleishman, an 18-year veteran of tech journalism, was another consultant, as was Dan Frakes, The Wirecutter’s senior tech gear and gadgets editor; previously, Dan had held a similar position at Macworld.
On top of that, we asked Bob Vila what made a great headlamp. He emailed us four words—“Flexible, comfortable, lightweight and LED!!”—and so for around-the-house DIYers, that’s exactly what we looked for.
Finally, we also emailed Joe Grant, ultrarunner and owner of Alpine Works, and Anton Krupicka, an ultrarunner sponsored by Buff, La Sportiva, and Petzl (among others), for their take on what makes a great headlamp for outdoorsy people.
Who this is for
If you want to do any of the following stuff, this is the guide for you:
- Go outside
- Hang out at home
- Home repair
- Car repair
- Garage work
- Shed work
- Professional things
If you want to run with your headlamp, we have an update with a pick for runners on the way. If you want to commute by bike, the picks here could work, but you might have a better option; see our helmet bike light recommendation. If you want to canoe or kayak, the picks in this guide are weatherproof and splashproof but not meant to be submerged in water. If you take it, don’t drop it!
The headlamps in this guide are not recommended for mountain biking (you need something brighter) or hunting, nor are they appropriate for military purposes, tactical use, or rescue (you need something with colored LED lights, and color temperature might matter, too). And they are not the right choice for caving, diving, or underwater photography (you need something seriously waterproof).
How we picked and tested
First, we researched headlamp reviews and recommendations from reputable sources online. We also combed through Amazon to see what products had great word of mouth, and then we vetted the reviews of those products by analyzing them on Fakespot. Based on reader feedback in our comment sections, we greatly expanded our testing pool and called in 12 more headlamps to examine for this update.
We conducted a small survey of our readers to find out how people use their headlamps; 42 percent of respondents told us they use headlamps for work around the house, while 23 percent said they use the products for backpacking. Afterward, for the at-home users, we heeded Bob Vila’s advice and searched for something flexible, comfortable, lightweight, and LED. For the backpackers, we looked for lights with red and white LEDs, made sure battery life was decent, and confirmed whether a model had a sturdy enough build to take a beating. We then made a spreadsheet to compare specs, picked what we wanted to test firsthand, and put 23 headlamps through four rounds of testing.
Battery test: The light and battery specs on headlamp boxes are highly misleading, so long ago we stopped clocking the run times of batteries because most lights will run as long as advertised or even more. It’s how the light behaves during that run time that’s more important. For our test, we loaded our headlamps with fresh batteries, turned them on to their highest setting, and recorded their performance for five hours. With the exception of the reactive headlamps, all of them dimmed, which is normal; it’s a reality of how light output works. However, some lights dimmed more significantly and pathetically than others, and that’s what we were looking for.
Beam spread: We photographed the beams of our lights inside a dark shed to see what they looked like, and we compared them against one another.
Usability: We used every light for DIY tasks around the house, camp cooking, and hiking in bad weather. We tried to see which ones we could operate without having to read the instructions. We pressed all buttons, adjusted all head straps, and checked how difficult it was to open the battery housings in the dark.
Durability: We put all 23 headlamps through the spin cycle of a dryer for 30 seconds, because why not. We don’t know whether yours will ever take a beating of that magnitude, but we considered it our job to find you a headlamp that could. In this test, only one broke from its housing. (And a few turned themselves on.)
The Black Diamond Spot shone bright enough, far enough, and long enough in our tests for us to choose it as our favorite from a testing pool of two dozen options. It can shine at up to 200 lumens, plenty to light up a trail while you’re walking, and it also has a floodlight setting for looking at maps, cookstoves, and other objects up close. It lasts longer on three AAA batteries than anything comparable, a major consideration when having to pack more batteries means putting more weight in your pack.
The Spot has an extremely high level of waterproofing and dustproofing, and it has other small features that should make users happy, including a battery indicator light, a button-lockout mode, and a redesigned battery door, which used to be a total chore to open and close in the dark but is now much easier to work with. The optional red-LED setting will keep you from blinding comrades around the campfire or waking tent mates during a middle-of-the-night bathroom break. It doesn’t hurt that the redesign looks pretty cool, too.
The beam on the Spot does a couple of things well. First, it can throw light really far down a path. The 200-lumen spotlight can light up trees about 80 feet away, not as much as the spec sheet’s claim of 80 meters (262 feet) but still plenty far, and you can see more tree-branch detail down the path than you can with the comparable Princeton Tec Remix.
When rooting around in a shed at night, we had no problem finding our gear. The Spot is brighter than the very similar Black Diamond Cosmo, and such brightness is something that 53 percent of surveyed readers told us was their most important consideration when buying a light. The optics of the Spot aren’t as clean as those of other headlamps—you can see a hot spot in the middle of the beam—but in real life we don’t think you’ll care. It works fine, and it costs less than high-powered, highly engineered lights. (If a high-quality beam spread does interest you, though, check out the Coast FL75, our upgrade pick.)
The Spot doesn’t let you click through different low and high settings. Instead it offers one big button (now even bigger after the redesign) as a sort of dimmer switch, letting you smoothly toggle through various light settings from low to high.
The Spot runs on three AAA batteries, and Black Diamond advertises it as lasting 50 hours on the highest setting. We know that the light output drops over time, because we’ve observed it, and because in general that’s how battery output works. Petzl and Princeton Tec both guarantee a certain amount of light output over a fixed amount of time for some of their respective models, but you’ll pay an exorbitant price in battery life for this feature: Compared with the Spot, the similarly priced Petzl Tikka + is half as bright (110 lumens on high) and lasts just two hours on its highest setting, 48 hours less than our top pick.
Since your vision adjusts to the ambient light around you, it’s not so bad if your light is blasting less than 100 percent most of the time, so we think the battery life of the Spot is a bigger advantage than constant light output. On low, Black Diamond claims, the Spot runs up to 200 hours.
The Spot has a red-light mode, a feature that we looked for specifically when defining our criteria for picking headlamps, and one that seems to be veiled in a bit of confusion. Red light lets you see things without destroying your night vision, or that of the people around you. As for maps, however, though anecdotal opinions among campers may indicate otherwise, red light works for map reading only if you have a red-light-readable map. Generally, only the army uses such maps, and they’re not commonly available at your local camping store. Anything on a map drawn in red will disappear under a red light. The most practical use for the night-vision-preserving red LED when you’re camping is to make sure you don’t blind your buddies when you look up during a conversation and shoot light straight into their eyeballs.
This headlamp also offers a red-strobe and white-strobe option, which we agree can sometimes be annoying to cycle through. But strobe lights are for signaling, and though they can occasionally be a nuisance, they can provide a much-needed way for rescuers to find you in an emergency, such as if you take a long slide down a hill and need your friends to come pry you off a cactus (which this author has done).
The redesigned Spot has an IPX water-resistance rating of 8, a massive upgrade over the former model. That means it will work submerged in up to 1.1 meters of water for 30 minutes. In the original version of this guide, writer Cliff Agocs confirmed, “I’ve personally fished the 2012 model out of a hot tub after it had long-since stopped running. I dried it out for a day, replaced the batteries, and it lit up again like it had never gone in the drink.” So if you find yourself in a downpour, or if your gear takes an accidental swim down a river, your headlamp should survive the ordeal.
You’ll also find a lockout mode, which allows you to prevent the light from turning on in a bag or backpack (inadvertently draining the battery), as well as a battery indicator light that lets you know when the juice is running low. Finally, Black Diamond offers a fairly generous warranty for the Spot: Unlike other products from the company, which come with a one-year policy, Black Diamond lighting is guaranteed for three years from defects.
OutdoorGearLab gave the Black Diamond Spot an Editors’ Choice Award in 2013 and 2014, calling it “an ideal all around headlamp” and saying that “[m]any headlamps that cost more than $80 couldn’t match its brightness and close proximity scores.” In the 2015 review, Jediah Porter writes, “Battery life in the Spot is about average and noteworthy for a headlamp with such good lighting quality scores… If you want a great beam with a long battery life, [it’s] hard to beat the Spot.”
Backpacker Magazine was most impressed by the Spot’s running time. Reviewer Casey Lyons found that it “shone for two days in spot mode on alkaline batteries, 15 hours longer than the next closest competitor on a similar setting.”
Even hardcore naturalists love this thing. Take Russell Hunter, a full-time guide with the Colorado Mountain School. On the school’s blog, Hunter explains, “When guiding in the mountains, an alpine start is often required to maximize the potential for good weather. Getting up and off a route before afternoon storms roll in is essential to climbing in the mountains. The Spot is the perfect headlamp for these early morning starts: it is small, light, and incredibly bright!”
Flaws but not dealbreakers
We think the Spot is overbuilt. Although it’s true that some people want a battery indicator, and some want a headlamp that can sit on the bottom of a pool for an hour, and some want the freedom to fine-tune the brightness of their beam, for the most part we think it’s overkill. But none of those features are doing any harm by existing, and the Spot’s performance—the brightness and battery life—is still superior to that of the competition, so this flaw is easy to overlook.
What we really wish is that the dang on/off button were easier to use. Black Diamond eschews low, medium, and high settings in favor of a button that operates like a dimmer switch, a design that seems cool at first but instead turns out to be slightly annoying. Determining whether the light is on its highest setting is always difficult. In addition, you need to operate both the red and white LEDs using the same button, and figuring out how to toggle between the two is always a fight.
We admire Black Diamond’s effort to incorporate a lot of functionality into one slick package, but in reality we’d love this product even more if it had a dead-simple button like that on the Vitchelo V800 or Coast FL75. Even so, the price and reputation of this light made it our pick above those other two models, in spite of the crummy button. (So, Black Diamond, please make sure that your next version of this awesome headlamp includes a switch that mortals can easily master.)
Some reviews on Amazon and on forums such as the Trailspace Outdoor Gear Forums complain that Black Diamond gear on the whole isn’t as sturdy or reliable as it used to be. We agree. At the time Cliff Agocs wrote the original version of this guide, Black Diamond had just moved its manufacturing overseas, and quality was compromised. More recently the company has repatriated its factory, but unfortunately the transition has been rough, and Black Diamond has issued several recalls lately. Recalls on safety gear? Yeah, that really sucks.
In spite of all that, we have used the Spot for years now, comparing its quality and usability against those of a wide variety of headlamps, and we still find it superior to anything in the same price range. My personal Spot headlamp is from 2011, and it has never faltered. And all of Black Diamond’s lighting remains backed by the company’s three-year warranty.
For casual use: Vitchelo V800
We can’t overstate just how wonderful it is to have separate buttons for the red and white LED settings on a headlamp, and that’s why, of all the very good budget options out there, we prefer the Vitchelo V800. And we gave it our stamp of approval for all the other usual reasons, too: Its bright, long-lasting light is superior to that of similar options in our test group, and it comes with a nice dose of weatherproofing as well as a warranty.
Back to those buttons, though—they’re the reason we preferred this light over its closest competitor, the Foxelli MX20. The one on the right clicks through four settings of white light (High, Med, Low, Strobe) and then off, while the one on the left clicks through two settings of red light (Solid, Strobe) and then off. You can do it wearing gloves. You can do it in the rain. You can do it in a boat or with a goat. We wish all headlamps operated this way.
The Vitchelo V800 is a 168-lumen light capable of throwing a 110-meter beam, which is allegedly longer than (but to our eye, about the same as) the beam of our top choice. Again, a hot spot appears in the middle, but that’s the type of projection that comes at this price. The easy-to-use rotating dial on the Princeton Tec Sync is as user-friendly as the Vitchelo’s buttons, but that model is approximately half as bright as the Vitchelo—90 lumens—and costs about the same.
It runs on three AAAs for 120 hours, though neither the company’s site nor the packaging offers specifications as to which setting will let it run that long. Knowing what we do about how specs are usually presented, we’re confident in assuming that the “120 hours” is the run time for the lowest setting. In our battery test, the Vitchelo remained one of the brightest lights for the full five hours we had it running.
The water-resistance rating is IPX6, which means it’s “protected from powerful water jets.” Here’s hoping it won’t get dunked, but if a light rain hits you, it should keep working.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The stripped-down design that makes the Vitchelo V800 so user friendly also means fewer light settings, so you get no floodlight on this headlamp. Floodlights are best for proximity lighting, such as when you’re cooking, but even so, we think this model works fine. If, however, you plan on using your headlamp for something like modeling or sewing, where you’ll be working in close-quarters detail, a floodlight might be helpful.
More important, we were disappointed to find that almost all of the 3,000-plus glowing reviews of this product on Amazon are fake. At the time we checked, Fakespot gave the legitimacy of the reviews an F rating—as low as it can go—and indicated that up to 82 percent of them might be fake.
This problem with the reviews may make some people feel like they’re getting ripped off. But even if Vitchelo’s marketing scheme isn’t on the up and up, we legitimately loved using this headlamp, and it passed all of our tests. We’ll continue to use it (and we’ll put the company’s warranty to the test) over the coming year.
A rechargeable option: Black Diamond ReVolt
Of all the rechargeable options available, we think the Black Diamond ReVolt is the best. You can load it up with regular, alkaline, or lithium AAAs if you run out of power, too, something we think is absolutely essential if you plan on being in the backcountry for almost any amount of time.
To our genuine surprise, we learned that many rechargeable headlamps, including the Foxelli MX500 and the NiteRider Adventure 180, can’t accept batteries. The remaining models that do, such as the Petzl Tikka R+ and the LED Lenser SEO 7R, are expensive and somewhat clunky, and we don’t think you’d want to lug such a model around on your head for very long.
The ReVolt incorporates all the other features that Black Diamond models are known for, too, namely a red LED, a dimmable floodlight, and a strobe. This headlamp is rated at IPX4, which means it can withstand “rain and sleet from any angle.” The battery meter, lock mode, and warranty are all in place.
If having a rechargeable option is your number one concern, the ReVolt is your best bet. But even though several reputable publications have named this model their favorite light, we’re hesitant to recommend it over the Spot until the tech tightens up a little.
First of all, the specs most prominently displayed on the package are performance specs for alkaline batteries, and lithium-ion batteries cannot (yet) give you the same output that alkaline or lithium batteries can. If you use the rechargeable feature on this headlamp, you get a battery life of 80 hours on high and 190 hours on low, and an output of 130 lumens. That’s plenty for you to do whatever you need to do in the out of doors, but still less robust than the life of our top pick, the Black Diamond Spot.
It took us nine hours to charge the ReVolt. If you were hoping to top this headlamp off with a Goal Zero on a long backpacking trip, we’re not saying it’s impossible, but getting a decent amount of power might be much harder than you expect. If and when this headlamp dies, you might be better off using batteries until you can get to a power source.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Just one notable flaw: that button! It’s the same not-great single-button design as on the Spot.
Higher quality: Coast FL75
If you want a headlamp with a brighter, higher-quality beam than our top pick offers, we think the Coast FL75 is the most user-friendly option for weekend camping and working around the house. Designed to run on basic AAA batteries, this 405-lumen light has both a floodlight and a spotlight that you can toggle between using a manual dial around the lens; it also has a red LED, something that not all of the higher-end models have. To our great joy, the red and white LEDs have separate buttons that are simple to operate, too. The FL75 also survived our dryer test while some comparable models couldn’t, so we have confidence in taking it camping. Plus, Coast offers a lifetime warranty on this product.
On its highest setting the Coast FL75 can run two hours, and if you run it on low it will go for 12. You can find some other models, at the same price, that shine brighter and run longer—the ThruNite TH10, for example, can operate at 580 lumens for almost three hours. But you sacrifice a lot of usability for the sake of an extra hour of run time, as the TH10 weighs quite a bit, requires a special 18650 battery, and lacks a red LED.
We’re also excited about how resilient the FL75 is compared with how heavy it is. High-powered lights start to get heavy, and we even had to leave one or two, such as the Nitecore HC50, out of our tumble-dry test because we feared they would destroy the dryer. We can’t imagine wanting to lug a light that heavy around on our heads for long. The Coast FL75 had no problems going through 30 seconds of tumble drying and suffered no damage, unlike the ZebraLight H52; the ZebraLight turned itself on in the dryer, and though it continued to work it was never quite the same, occasionally struggling to turn on and sometimes not turning off.
The Coast FL75 is rated at IPX4, which is a lot lower than the rating of our top choice, but the product can still withstand “a splash of water from any direction for up to 5 minutes,” which is plenty of time for you to get out of an unanticipated rain shower.
We have a few issues with the FL75: It’s heavier than the Spot, and the twisting bezel that changes the beam from flood to spot is a little sticky, at times requiring two hands to operate. The FL75 also lacks a strobe mode, which definitely makes it easier to use and operate, but we think the Spot’s inclusion of such a safety feature makes the Spot a better overall choice for outdoors use.
Great for kids: Shining Buddy LED Headlamp
We weren’t shocked to find that kids were drawn to the headlamps with red flashing lights—a feature that both the Black Diamond models and the similar Petzl Tikkina lacked. A red-light mode is meant for preserving night vision (the better for stargazing while reading up on alien science). The kids we know seem to like it mostly so that they can pretend to be red-eyed monsters or aliens. And why not let them? The Shining Buddy LED Headlamp is an ounce heavier than the Black Diamond Wiz (a comparable model for kids) and lacks the auto turn-off feature we love. But it’s easy to adjust and operate, it includes the red and red-flashing modes, and as of this writing it costs a third less than the Wiz.
Yes, you could simply cinch down an adult headlamp for a smaller cranium. But a headlamp chosen with kid use in mind can be an affordable, versatile tool that makes for a fun first piece of camping gear. What qualities separate a headlamp that’s perfect for kids from a great adult one? Weight was tops on our list: A child’s headlamp should be featherlight with an easily adjustable strap for little hands (and heads). We also wanted low- and high-beam modes for story reading and spooky hikes, and we wanted buttons that are easy for small fingers to find and push.
Why headlamp specs are misleading
When we begin research on anything at The Wirecutter, our first step is to build a spreadsheet and compare the numbers, because that’s a great way to start understanding how products in a group are related to one another.
But as we’ve continued through several years of testing outdoor lighting products in particular, we have moved away from numbers comparisons and found more value in observing lights with the naked eye. It sounds low-tech, but we’re convinced this is the best possible method for finding what really works, because the lighting specs listed on packages can be deceiving.
To start, a lumen is not the obvious indicator of performance it may seem. A rational person might walk into a store, see a headlamp on the shelf that’s rated at 200 lumens, and make the logical conclusion that it is brighter than the 150-lumen light sitting next to it. However, no box is eager to inform you that lumens do not stay constant for the entire run time of the light.
Often, companies provide easily findable documentation of how the light output will change on a certain product over time, so this behavior isn’t a secret. But it isn’t obvious, either. For instance, what if the 200-lumen light starts outputting just 100 lumens after being on for only five minutes, while the 150-lumen light remains constant for 10 or 20 minutes? Which one is the brighter light? Some companies, such as Petzl and Princeton Tec, take measures to guarantee a certain amount of output over time, but unfortunately it takes a lot of power to maintain that output, and battery life suffers as a result.
In fact, using the lumen as a measurement of brightness is problematic overall. Its very definition is confounding: According to the Oxford dictionary, a lumen is “the SI unit of luminous flux, equal to the amount of light emitted per second in a unit solid angle of one steradian from a uniform source of one candela.” How bright is that, exactly?
Stack on a few more variables, starting with the fact that lumen output is totally different depending on whether you use alkaline, lithium, lithium-ion, nickel-hydride, or some other type of battery. Add the physical components, such as the lens and the LEDs, which vary in shape, output, size, and arrangement, and influence how and where the light shines. Finally, consider the color of the light—the lumens emitted from a red LED, as you would find in a bike taillight, appear different to the naked eye than lumens from LEDs of other colors. Alex Cota, test engineer at Light & Motion, explained to us in an email, “Your eyes are more sensitive to green light so we would always expect higher lumens from green light. Red light on the other hand will have lower lumens than green light. You can accurately compare one red light to another red light in lumens since it will tell you which light is brighter or more visible.” So the lumens advertised for bike taillights, which are red, are comparable to each other but not to the lumens of the white LEDs you’ll see on headlamps.
Also consider the fact that such claims are only self-regulated. Companies can voluntarily test their lights to the FL-1 standard, which guarantees a certain amount of light output over time, but they don’t have to do it. In addition, we spoke with an engineer at a bike-lighting company off the record, and according to him, lumisphere testing has potential pitfalls—a slight tilt of the light in any direction can produce wildly different readings.
By now, we hope you’re convinced that there is no way to know what 200 lumens looks like. We use the word lumen to distill all of these variables, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it saves our brains from meltdown. But a lumen count is not the obvious indicator of performance it may appear to be at first.
Headlamp specs have even more issues, however. The next major problem is that the numbers on the box are often misleading, and they play on the assumptions of even the most thoughtful human.
Sometimes, the lumens figure most prominently advertised relates to something called “burst mode.” That’s when you can hold down the button on a headlamp for a short period of time and get a bright flash of light. If you’re not familiar with burst mode, you might assume that a Fenix headlamp “boasting a maximum of 280 lumens while in burst mode” runs at 280 lumens all the time. But in reality, it can shine that bright for only a few seconds. Sustainable light output for this model actually tops out at 150 lumens, as indicated elsewhere on the headlamp’s product page.
Another example from Petzl is a model that “offers 160 lumen brightness in Boost mode.” This light can shine that bright for only 10 seconds.
And according to the table farther down that product page, the brightest setting usable over a period of time (two hours) is actually just 110 lumens.
Sometimes, on the packaging for rechargeable headlamps, the listed specs are for alkaline batteries, because an alkaline charge is currently more powerful. You can see the difference in output between alkaline batteries and rechargeable (NiMH) batteries on the product page for our rechargeable pick, the Black Diamond ReVolt.
And sometimes the terminology slapped on these things is horseshit. Labeling a beam setting as high, medium, or low is helpful. Labeling settings as “Overdrive,” “Burst,” or “Enduro” is not.
When you consider a product by itself, sure, you can figure out what each term represents. The problem is that when you line products up side by side, determining how the settings compare becomes extremely difficult.
All of these things combined—the intricate relationship between power and light output, the lack of formal standards, and the marketing strategies that take advantage of your logical assumptions—are what hamper your ability to compare products by their numbers alone.
Black Diamond Cosmo: This model is similar to the Vitchelo V800 lumen-wise, but its specs fall short, as it offers a lower beam distance, a lower IPX rating, and only one button. It’s slightly more expensive, too.
Black Diamond Storm: Slightly overbuilt for the average user, this headlamp produces 250 lumens and has a green LED. Interestingly, it’s rated to only IPX7, which means it can’t tolerate submerging like the Spot—why name it “Storm” if it isn’t the most weather-resistant option?
Coast HL7: This model offers the same superb lighting quality as the Coast lamp we chose, and it provides a manual switch that lets you adjust the brightness, a feature that gets great reviews. But it doesn’t have a red LED, and the battery pack is wired. Those shortcomings aren’t a dealbreaker, but if you’re going to use your headlamp for any outdoor activity, get the FL75, which has the red light.
Fenix HL50: Similar in design to the ZebraLight H52, the Fenix uses a CR123 battery, which is an odd size. It also claims a burst mode that’s notably higher than its usable lumens of 170, and it has no red light. For the money, we prefer the Coast FL75, which costs less and is noticeably brighter.
Petzl Tikka +: Similar to Black Diamond, Petzl creates nice lights that are at the mercy of not-that-great buttons. Just about everyone we know has owned a Petzl at one point in their backpacking career, and this company is one of the very few that guarantee the light output will remain constant for the advertised battery life. Because this headlamp works so hard to give you that output, however, it sacrifices run time (only two hours on high) and brightness. And the high setting is not quite as robust as advertised—those 160 lumens are available only in “Boost mode,” which runs for 10 seconds tops. In reality, 110 lumens is the best sustained output it can produce.
Petzl Tikka R+: This rechargeable light with reactive lighting can’t take alkaline batteries, so if you don’t have access to power after it dies, you’re done. We like the reactive lighting, which adjusts the brightness of the lamp according to how much ambient light is present, but we’re not sure it’s an advantage. The feature is designed to preserve battery life, but the headlamp’s longest advertised run time is still less than that of our top pick, without being brighter. This model is also heavy and expensive.
Petzl Tikka XP: A brighter light with the same issues as the Tikka +, including a low battery run time on high and lower usable lumens than advertised.
Foxelli MX20: This model would have been our runner-up budget option if it had offered two buttons like the Vitchelo V800. The MX20 is less expensive, but we think those separate buttons on the V800 are worth the extra few dollars. Similar to the Vitchelo, this product seems to have a lot of fake reviews.
Foxelli MX500: A rechargeable that can’t take batteries, this light is inexpensive and bright, but it’s also fussy, with a cross band on the headband (which you can remove), a wired battery pack, and a sliding diffuser. No red LED.
LED Lenser NEO: Meant for jogging at dusk, this lightweight model looks cool and sports a rear red LED. But our staff runners, who often go out at night, prefer about 300 lumens or more, and would rather wear a reflective safety vest than rely on a tiny red LED to notify traffic of their presence.
LED Lenser SEO 5: Although this model has the same output and cooler looks than our runner-up pick, it’s heavier and twice as expensive.
LED Lenser SEO 7R: This rechargeable light (that can take alkaline batteries) is stylish and more user friendly than the Black Diamond ReVolt. But like the Petzl Tikka R+, it also has reactive lighting, making it twice as expensive as the ReVolt and notably heavy.
Nitecore HC50: More headlamp than most people need. The body is heavy, it has three colors of LEDs, you can submerge it in water (IPX8), and it takes a specialty 18560 battery. This means it can burn very bright (560 lumens), but it doesn’t have a lot of battery life, and we think you’ll want more. This is one of four lights that turned off completely during our battery test.
NiteRider Adventure 180: It can’t take AAAs after the rechargeable cell dies, and it costs quite a lot.
Pelican 2720: The 2720 takes one AAAA battery, which is strange, and in general nothing particularly stood out on this model. It’s bulkier than other, similar designs.
Princeton Tec Remix: No red LED, and to the eye it was less powerful than our top pick in our beam tests.
Princeton Tec Sync: We really liked the manually rotating on/off controls, and we considered this model for our budget option, but the Vitchelo V800’s buttons proved to be better. The Sync’s dial turned on inside a carry-on several times, in spite of being in “lock” mode.
ThruNite TH10: Like several other products we decided to test, this headlamp doesn’t have a red LED, but we looked at it anyway just to see what it was about. It’s a well-made, bright light with short battery life, and it takes a specialty 18650 battery. It’s also heavy, so it would be a better choice for utility work that requires especially bright light than for camping or general use.
Yalumi Spark Dual: This light broke out of its housing during the tumble-dry test.
ZebraLight H52: A headlamp for lighting nerds. The people who make ZebraLight models spend a lot of time fine-tuning every part of the product, and you can sort of customize yours, as they come in a wide variety of color temperatures and battery types. The H52 is also an alluring object—heavy, compact, and fun to hold. But due to the high-powered optics, the battery doesn’t last very long; the lights are also hard to pull out of the headband, and the models are expensive. This is not a light for most people, but rather a high-quality option for those who already know what they want.